Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time

I remember something the philosopher Gerald Heard told me.  The first thing a man is aware of, he said, is the steady rhythm of his mother’s heartbeat and the last thing he hears before he dies is his own.  Rhythm is the common bond of all humanity: it is also the most pronounced and readily misunderstood ingredient of jazz.

— Dave Brubeck

We’ve waited way too long for a serious biography of Dave Brubeck — but at last we’ve got it, and it’s a good one.  British music journalist Philip Clark’s Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time rises to the challenge of portraying the pianist/composer in his fullness — his days, his works, his friendships, and his ideals.

Fittingly, Clark plays with time to unlock the rich pageant of Brubeck’s 92 years.  Pivoting off a extended interview conducted on a 2003 British tour, the narrative unpacks Brubeck’s career in progress, building from West Coast beginnings through growing popularity coupled with critical puzzlement on the jazz scene to the mass culture break-out of Brubeck’s classic quartet (with Paul Desmond on sax, Eugene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums) via 1959’s “Take Five” and the Time Out album.  It’s only the strangely muted reception of Brubeck’s ambitious 1962 cantata The Real Ambassadors (a sly satire expressly written for Louis Armstrong) that sends Clark doubling back again — to Brubeck’s upbringing in rural California and the influences that forged him as musician and man.

The wide open spaces of his father’s ranch where he thought up cross-rhythms against the pace of his horse; classical training by his pianist mother; the swaggering sound of stride piano, boogie-woogie and big bands on the radio.  All these were core elements in Brubeck’s eventual sound; but the alchemical key came when, after serving in World War II and attending college on the GI Bill, he studied under French composer Darius Milhaud.  Falling hard for Milhaud’s modernist neoclassicism — a constant, endlessly vivacious clash of keys and rhythms —  Brubeck used the resulting aggregate to sculpt a style that insistently pushed against regulated time and tonality, but left room for heartfelt sentiment and never stopped swinging.  Intuitively linked with Desmond’s dry lyricism, Morello’s elegant explorations, and Wright’s rock-steady walk, Brubeck’s classic quartet became an exemplary musical family for nearly a decade, each giving their best in order to let the others shine.  Clark’s engrossing descriptions of the group on the bandstand and in the studio pull off a supremely difficult task: capturing the excitement of the music in the moment of its creation, leaving the reader eager to hear what he’s just read about.  (A chapter focusing on Brubeck’s solo piano albums, which span the decades from the 1950s to his final years, is equally compelling.)

Of course, Brubeck’s popularity wasn’t universal; in the heyday of hard bop, his music typically struck mainstream jazz critics as unhip and pretentious.  But Clark’s survey of key jazzers’ contemporary reactions — the admiration of Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus, the early support of Duke Ellington, even the studied ambivalence of Miles Davis — demonstrate that Brubeck had his fellow musicians’ respect from the beginning.  (There’s also a delightful sidebar on Brubeck’s influence among rock and fusion keyboardists, focusing on Keith Emerson’s feedback-laden deconstruction of “Blue Rondo A La Turk”.) And as Clark’s 2017 interview with Eugene Wright reveals, there was much more to the good feeling Brubeck garnered than mere acknowledgment of his skills and inspiration.

Recruiting the African-American Wright in 1958 kicked off six years of turmoil for Brubeck.  Deeply effected by a childhood encounter with a black friend of his father’s who’d been branded, he forcefully rejected demands from American booking agents and college presidents to tour with a replacement bassist in segregated states, and insisted on playing to integrated audiences down south, regularly facing threats from the Ku Klux Klan.  Recruited by the US State Department the same year for a goodwill tour of authoritarian countries, the contradictions ate at Brubeck and his wife Iola, even while they forged lifelong ties with the jazz communities of Poland, Turkey and India.  The Real Ambassadors was the ultimate result, positing the Hero played by Armstrong as an unassuming representative of our common humanity, annulling the effects of national borders and governments frozen in opposition.  In addition, the cantata incorporated elements of both gospel and Gregorian chant, planting seeds for the extended sacred works Brubeck composed after the classic quartet dissolved.  (The only element that Clark misses?  Brubeck’s eventual conversion to Catholicism in 1980; go figure.)

I’m grateful I got to hear Dave Brubeck live back in 2002, with his latter-day quartet.  82 years old at that point, he seemed scarily unsteady on his feet as he approached the piano.  But seated at the keyboard, his heart, mind and hands belied any physical frailty; the sensuous warmth of “Koto Song”, the unabashedly delighted swing of “Take the ‘A’ Train” and a “Take Five” that brought down the house are permanently etched in my memory, along with the beaming smile he displayed at the show’s end.  If I can play with that kind of intensity and joy at that age, I will be deeply grateful.  As I am to Philip Clark, whose new biography testifies to a life well-lived — a life in time, in which Brubeck served others by giving fully of himself.

(Written in loving memory of fellow Brubeck fan Beverly Gnida, 1933-2020.)

— Rick Krueger

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